x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Azzaz: inside the town that is the Syrian rebels' lifeline

Opposition fighters hope to use Azzaz as a base for a new assault on Aleppo, but a lack of foreign support hinders their plans.

AZZAZ, SYRIA // Refugees are trickling back and businesses are reopening as rebels appear firmly in control of this northern border town. Now they hope to use it as a gateway for their assault on Aleppo, about 40 kilometres down the road.

Opposition leaders say the southward assault by the rebel Free Syria Army hinges on their control of Azzaz and a corridor they have "liberated" from regime forces that spans the Turkish border city of Kilis and south to the frontlines of Aleppo.

The FSA wants to use Azzaz to transport food, medicine, fuel and weapons from Turkey to fighters in Aleppo, where rebels are engaged in a battle against regime forces.

Azzaz, rebels say, should form the mouth to feed their operations in Aleppo, but the plan is being thwarted by a lack of foreign support.

"We're waiting for the international community to take advantage of this situation, but nothing yet," said Fawaz Zakri, a member of the Syrian National Council opposition based in Istanbul, as he stopped in Azzaz to meet FSA officials.

Rebel leaders believe they have a golden opportunity to deal a smashing blow to the regime. They have driven regime forces from large swaths of northern Syria and then worked their way towards Aleppo.

Those successes - clear from the burnt out remains of the government tanks and armoured personnel carriers that still litter the streets of Azzaz - also yielded them control over two border crossings with Turkey, including the Bab Al Salama crossing at Azzaz.

"If we can defeat the Syrian army from here and control this city, we can be victorious against the Syrian army anywhere," said Ahmed Ghazali, an FSA captain in Azzaz, who called the town "hugely strategic".

But western nations have been wary of providing Syrian rebels with the sort of support that was offered to fighters in Libya during their uprising last year.

Since Syria's uprising began 17 months ago, the West has recoiled at the thought of intervening in the crisis. The rebels are fractious and unwieldy - and supporting them could anger Mr Al Assad's powerful allies in Moscow and Beijing.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar - with logistical support from the United States - have been funding rebel fighters. But opposition figures and FSA fighters said such efforts fell woefully short of what was needed to destroy Mr Al Assad's superior military forces.

"We want weapons," said Mr Zakri. Two weeks ago, he added, he asked for anti-aircraft munitions and other weapons from the Turkish government. But they refused.

"They say they can't do anything like this without international support," he said.

Turkey has insisted that it is not arming rebels in Syria.

"We are not sending armed elements to any neighbouring country, including Syria," said Selcuk Unal, the foreign ministry spokesman in Ankara.

A Turkish source said complaints by some rebels in Syria about a lack of arms coming in from Turkey seemed to confirm Ankara's official position against arms deliveries, but weapons smuggling along the 900km border was possible, given the close connections between people on either side of the frontier.

Nevertheless, opposition leaders have acknowledged that Turkey's support for Syrian rebels has been vital.

This has included Ankara opening the country's border to thousands of refugees and to wounded FSA fighters seeking medical treatment.

While some rebel leaders have bemoaned a lack of foreign backing, one senior FSA commander has claimed that Turkey has helped to ship arms into Syria.

Abdulaziz Salama, of theTawhid Brigade, which is the primary group attacking Aleppo, said his rebel forces had received two arms shipments coordinated by Turkey and the US. He didnot know where the weapons had originated.

The first shipment, he said, came a month ago and included 700 RPG rounds, 300 rifles and bullets. The second shipment consisted of 3,000 grenades.

But he said this fell short of what the rebels needed to win.

Turkish border guards also turn a blind eye to rebel fighters who slip back and forth across the border.

Smugglers, too, cross over with ease, bringing everything from cigarettes and medical supplies, and coordinating reporting trips for journalists.

"I just smile, show the Turkish soldiers my bag and give them cigarettes, and then they let me go," said a Syrian who arranges for journalists to cross through the official Bab Al Salama post, which is managed by Turkish and FSA officials. He enters illegally by crossing through a nearby field.

Last week, Turkish officials agreed to deliver, through Azzaz, about 10 tonnes of rice and flour donated to rebels by Saudi Arabia.

Samir Hajj Omar, the head of Azzaz's political committee, an interim FSA authority that manages the city's municipal and legal affairs, said the food shipments came regularly.

He helped to negotiate thedeal, which also included buying petrol from Turkey to aid the rebel operations.

"We'll use what we're given from the Saudis for the fighters and people in Aleppo," said Mr Omar. Rebels were "able to get this because of what has happened here and in Aleppo".

But he doubted the aid would be enough to sustain a successful assault against Mr Assad's superior military power, which includes Soviet-era jet fighters and daunting air power.

In the meantime, FSA rebels fighting in Aleppo, who said they capture the bulk of their weapons from government forces, wield ageing AK-47 assault rifles. Some wearfatigues stolen from militarypersonnel.

Azzaz residents also hope for a loosening of the border. Goods primarily brought in from Aleppo have stopped flowing since the fighting erupted in the city last month, causing the prices of food, cigarettes and fuel to double and even triple.

Residents hope Turkey can ease the shortage by opening the Bab Al Salam crossing to trade in goods.

"We just opened after being closed for four months, and all we have are the goods that were in the store before we closed," said Mohammed Kenu, 36, who owns the Sharif mini-market in Azzaz.

"Aleppo is destroyed and we are getting nothing. We need Turkey, we need the world to support us. We have nothing."


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* With additional reporting by Thomas Seibert in Istanbul